Christian Unity Despite Theological Differences
It is crucial for Christians to know that, within the Church, not all Christians are doctrinally unified. Ideally, all Christians would believe the same doctrine and the idea of disagreements would be foreign to the Church. It is God’s will that we reflect the perfect unity of the Father and Son (John 17:11). However, so long as we live in this world which is devastated by sin, there will be errors in our understanding of God and His commands. One day we will have perfect unity in Heaven but we must fight to obey Christ’s command for us to be unified with other believers in the meantime.
The first step towards obeying this command is being able to recognize our Christian siblings. Below, I will discuss how we can identify our siblings in Christ by our shared faith in the gospel. After that, I will discuss how we can relate to our Christian siblings who share these beliefs but differ on things which are not the gospel.
Although the information below is foundational to the faith, we must be careful not to turn this into a quiz someone must pass before you worship with them. Not knowing all the details of the gospel, or not being able to articulate them well is not an indicator that they are unbelievers. We become Christians long before we become theologians. Remember, it is possible to have our minds filled with true doctrine while we remain as spiritually immature as new converts. Let us pray for grace and wisdom in applying the information below.
The Glorious Gospel: Our Basis for Unity
Christians must affirm the Bible as the word of God. The contents of the 66 canonical books are not the product of lofty human thoughts, nor are they a flawed collection of human attempts to write what God told them. Just as 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (see John 10:27, 2 Peter 1:21). The Bible is the only book in which God has chosen to speak clearly to His people. Thus, it is vital for all aspects of the Christian life.
Another essential belief is that the God of the Bible is the only God who exists. He is not one of many gods (Isaiah 44:6). This God, the only one who exists, is triune. This means He is one infinite being shared by three distinct persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each distinct person fully shares the essence of God which means they are each fully God, but they are not separate gods. Christians must agree on who God is so they can unite themselves under His rule and worship Him together (Exodus 20:3-6).
As our next essential, we have the gospel. Monotheism and the inerrancy of the Bible—mentioned above—are necessary for us to believe the gospel which is revealed to us by the one true God of Scripture. The gospel is the means by which people enter in relationship with God (Romans 1:16). A rejection of the gospel which reconciles us to God by faith alone is spiritually fatal. Every detail of the gospel is important (Galatians 1:7-9).
To understand the gospel, we must understand the nature of mankind. From birth, all people are corrupted by sin, and consequently, they walk in disobedience against God. We all intentionally sought what was contrary to the will of our creator, and for that rebellion we incurred the righteous judgment of God. God cannot turn a blind eye to sin because He is righteous, and wickedness cannot go unpunished (Proverbs 17:15, Colossians 3:5-7).
Fortunately for us, God in His great love and mercy, sent His Son, the second person of the Trinity, to suffer in place of those who would believe. He was born into the world through a virgin, and while He remained fully God, He took on flesh to become fully man. The Son lived a perfect life, perfectly keeping all the holy rules we broke, and He was crushed by the wrath of God which we deserved (1 John 2:2, Ephesians 1:5). By His sacrifice, He paid for all His people’s past, present, and future sins. After His death, He was resurrected on the third day, and He ascended to the Father’s right hand in Heaven to intercede for us (Romans 8:34).
It was God’s eternal plan to save His undeserving people in this way. Because the perfect obedience needed to please God was performed by Jesus Christ, salvation does not involve any of our obedience. It does not include baptism, church attendance, or anything else we do. We simply confess that we have sinned against a holy God and plead His forgiveness. By simple faith, we receive forgiveness. We are renewed in such a way that we want to love and obey God after we put our faith in Him (Romans 3-4, Ezekiel 36:25-27).
If you have not obeyed the Lord’s command to turn from sin and find reconciliation in Jesus Christ, I invite you to do so now. Please flee the wrath to come and put your faith in Christ. He is the only way to God (John 14:6). This gospel is powerful to save evil sinners like you and me. It is the basis for unity for all Christians, but it is also the only path to eternal life with God.
What if We Differ on Non-Essential Doctrines?
Non-essentials are doctrines that do not alter the gospel which unifies all Christians. Examples of these would be how a church’s government should be structured, who should be baptized, and whether we can sing contemporary-style music, or if we should only sing Psalms. It is a mistake to think these doctrines are unimportant because they all affect how we worship God. Some of them, such as beliefs about sacraments and church government structure, will prevent us from worshiping in the same church, but they should never keep us from affectionately loving each other and having fellowship outside the church building.
When meeting people with different views on non-gospel issues, focus on the fact that you have a common faith. The gospel that has brought you both to God has made you into one spiritual body under the headship of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Acknowledge glorifying God and serving His people as your common mission, and diligently look for ways to commune. If you’re a Presbyterian and you have friends who are Baptists, find ways to have fellowship. You may not attend the same church because of your differing convictions, but you can certainly evangelize together, pray together, or simply enjoy a meal together. There are people with differing theological views on this very website that you visited to read this article. We are united by the gospel, and we have banded together to edify fellow Christians and spread the gospel. The ways in which we can work with people who differ over non-essential doctrines are innumerable. We just have to be willing to look for them.
Our interactions with believers who have different convictions should not be dominated by heated exchanges and controversy. Continuous quarreling rarely, if ever, changes one’s doctrinal views. With that said, I am not discouraging respectful debates. Discussion encourages people to scour the Scriptures and evaluate their beliefs. If we take the Bible seriously, we will want to see eye-to-eye with other believers. Our only option for striving toward the goal of theological unity is to have loving, educated discussion aimed toward building up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:29-32).
The Basis of Our Unity
Remember that we are not ultimately unified on the basis of our shared theological beliefs. The blood of Jesus Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, brings us all to the same God (1 Peter 3:18). With this in mind, pursue your Christian family who is faithful to the same gospel and pray that God will work through you all together. Our basis for unity is much stronger than our non-essential reasons for separation. One day we will not have to struggle with these differences, but until that day we must intentionally seek fellowship with our Christian siblings united under the one gospel.